Movie #100: Sans Soleil

Manly: Chris Marker built this movie from other films, and from his own 16mm clips taken on travels to Japan and Guinea-Bisseau, as well as some from Iceland, San Francisco, Cape Verde, Ireland, and France. A voice-over, letters from an imaginary traveler named Sandor Kressna (read by Alexandra Stewart), weaves in and out and around the various clips, helping hold the whole assemblage together. And, none of the preceding description does any justice to the astonishing grace with which it drifts from here to there, from flat film stock to violently manipulated imagery, from one culture to another. It brought to mind the writing of WG Sebald, in the themes of memory and loss that his work shares with this film, but also in the meandering style that only reveals its tightly controlled structure in retrospect, and also the Japanese essay form zuihutsu (随筆), which is similarly fragmented and wandering at first blush, but which reveals a wealth of connections the longer one contemplates the different sections.

History throws its empty bottles out the window, the narrator says at one point, and true to a film about memory and the nature of time, Sans Soleil dips and weaves narratively, but also in the way it was edited. As several points early in the film, the odd electronic soundtrack stops abruptly, and the image on screen freezes, in a way that seems like there is a glitch on the DVD, but it is intentional, and only ever stops on a human face, and only for a few frames. Some scenes are manipulated with a video synthesizer, and near the end, early scenes return, and are manipulated this way too. The spiral of time recurs again and again in endlessly subtle ways, and also with great prescience: Marker, in 1983, had much to say about a globalist future where Guinea-Bisseau and Tokyo are closer together in a way that borders on the a-historical, where technology, specifically computers, will increasingly define ourselves and our sense of the passage of time.

I will have to watch this again in our backyard, on the big screen, to more fully appreciate its beauty, but I think I will carry with me a long time the “secret” that the narrator says humans keep from each other, and keep forgetting ourselves: we cannot save time, or waste it, we are time, spiralling ever forward.

Comfortina: “Let’s watch the top 100 films and write about them” he said. “Okay, sure.” It could be fun or terrifying or not fun at all as the 100th film was one 9 hours long but I’m hoping for fun.

When we were able to start watching, the list had been updated and the 9 hour film had shifted out of the top 100. (We have it now so we will watch it, just not yet!)

I’d never heard of San Soleil. It was made in the early eighties, something that made many of the things in the film make more sense as the credits rolled.

The first few scenes were off-putting in their choppiness and the appearance of not quite fitting together but that gave way quickly to the sense of walking through the lens of the camera and becoming a part of the conversation between the film maker and the narrator who read from letters sent by the film maker, who says he’s traveled the world but only finds interest in the banality of life and in the next breath looks only to catalog things that quicken the heart. 

Scenes cut back and forth between Japan and Guinea-Bisseau and the choppiness becomes blinking. The similarities among the scenes in the midst of mighty differences were breathtaking and compelling. Digitizing and synthesizing the images added another layer of leveling to the experience as the narration continued over blue and white images undulating to Moog music.

Vertigo and San Francisco get added to the mix and become the filling of rich and dense cake of a film.